On March 30, 2018, The Urban Shaman® investigative reporter, Patrick John Coleman sat down with Jinji Willingham, LPC and Zen Chaplain.
Jinji, can you tell us a little bit about what you do?
Hi Patrick, it’s good to be here. I live in Austin, Texas, where I am a licensed professional counselor and I have a psychotherapy clinical practice, and I am also a Zen hospital chaplain.
A Zen hospital chaplain. So, how did you get into this line of work? What called you to this line of work?
Well, it’s definitely been a long term process and a journey that’s changed along the way. It began with personal loss. After years of being an academic and interested in history, intellectual history, philosophy, and literature, and being kind of a scholar for a little while, I felt academia wasn’t the right place for me. It’s more like a gladiator role. And after the loss of my son in 2001, that was a really, you know, strangely beautiful and transforming experience. Lots of people who have been through grief will say something like that- that it changed them. In my case I think it just kind of connected me to my heart in a way that I hadn’t been for a long time. And after a few years, I kind of thought, ‘how can I stay there? How can I stay and inhabit this beautiful space?’ of…..
I tell people that, you know, when you’re in deep grief and struggling with something you kind of drop all your shit. And you get real. And so I wanted to try to find a way to continue doing that, and it seemed that walking on the path of loss and grief with others would be the most intuitive way to do that.
So I went back to school- again – and got my degree and became a counselor, or therapist, and I love doing that. But it really didn’t give me much access to people who are actively ill and dying. They often can’t come in for weekly therapy. And I realized that working in the hospital would be a place to do that, and the only way I could do that was to become a chaplain. So, I, it took me a while to figure things out. And then I found the Upaya Zen Center’s program, and so now I’m both [a therapist and chaplain]. Part of my current challenge is how to hold both of these credentials and roles, which our culture sees as separate, but my practice in psychospiritual care really requires both trainings, and both credentials.
So, how does your work differ from, say, a transpersonal psychologist?
It depends. I wouldn’t say that there is any one way to be a transpersonal psychologist. My training in therapy focused on…. I was already a Buddhist practitioner when I went back for counseling, so I looked for a program, and luckily in my own town I found one… that steers clear of the…. I mean, we needed to get the basic foundations in the history of psychotherapy, psychology, and counseling, but there was really very little of, you know, Freud and Adler and Jung, and even Rogers. It focused more on neuroscience and mindfulness practice, and attachment, and systems, which is really very much congruent with Zen tradition, Zen practice, Zen teachings. So there’s some similarity with the transpersonal approach in terms of, for me personally, but my work is primarily relational. Simply put, it is relational work that creates a safe space for people to drop into their core experience at a somatic, affective, and cognitive level.
Okay. Good. So, in your work as a chaplain and in your work as a grief counselor in helping the dead and dying, how has that informed your other practice? You know, because you said you had to, you’re balancing two different things, so how is each informing the other? How are you managing that?
Well, that’s a really good question. They’re not really two separate things. Our culture views them as two separate roles. So this is the best way I can respond. When I’m with the psychotherapy and counseling community I often feel there’s something missing, which is a deeper awareness of Zen or Buddhist teachings. I’m not saying that everybody has to be a Buddhist, but there’s a lot of awareness of mindfulness that’s crept into the counseling world, but they don’t have a very deep foundation of where that comes from. So they just kind of borrow some of the lexicon, some of the practices. When I’m with the Zen and Buddhist community I often feel that there’s a lack of insight about the psyche and the human experience, and it can often get into a ‘just breathe and relax and be calm.’ So, for me these are really not separate. And, it’s that our, it’s that the way that I am identified is I am a chaplain seeking board certification and I’m an LPC, so it’s all about credentials and which professional community you’re in.
But in the course of my work each day, whether I’m in my office with a group of people, or a couple, or an individual, or whether I’m at the hospital working with families, or staff, or patients, my orientation is very similar. I am practicing awareness of myself. I am tuning into my own experience, and staying regulated and grounded. I am remembering why I do this work, and it’s a process of attuning to myself and the other, regardless of who that may be, and doing the work at hand.
You know, it might be something administrative, seemingly administrative, like Advanced Directives. It might be an ethical conversation about withdrawal of care at the hospital. Or it might be working with people to explore the roots of their struggle, and ways of creating change in their lives that feels right. They’re all very integrated for me. At a conference I recently presented at in November of 2017 in Japan, it was a psychospiritual care conference. And that’s really the term that I might be leaning towards these days, is that I am a psychospiritual care provider.
Okay. Now here in Chicago, mental health, there’s several cutting edge programs in mental health here in Chicago, some of which I have had the opportunity to witness and participate in. So do you see in the communities that you’re in, in the therapy community, do you see therapists, or your colleagues more likely to address matters of the spirit or the soul now, moreso than they used to?
Possibly. Some of them. Some of them are. You know, there’s really a great benefit in, you know, I referred earlier to the benefit in borrowing of mindfulness language, and I’m not suggesting that that is not valuable. If it’s helpful, it’s helpful. I would be gratified for there to be a deeper understanding of what that term really means. But I’m happy that that trend is there and I do think that in the long run…hmm. Whether this is actually happening or whether it is the energy that I want to express in my work, in my life, and in my lifetime, it is moving towards….. I think there is a big trend of, you know, spiritual but not religious, and I think that we are waking up to this practice of compassion in a variety of service and caring roles. So I think we’re moving in that direction. But there are many therapists who are still practicing, who were trained thirty years ago. And there’s still a lot of CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] out there. There’s still a lot of psychodynamic work. And some of it is good work. Some of it’s appropriate for the population. And then there are, there is an increasing number of people who are getting into various contemplative practices and becoming therapists and counselors, and I think that is healthy too. I really can’t say too much more than just, there’s a variety of trends out there. But I’m optimistic. There’s more and more dissatisfaction with the problems that used to be out there, that are still out there, actually. Sadly, I still hear about some things that I thought might have ended decades ago, but there’s still a lot of skillful practitioners out there.
Things like gay conversion therapy?
Right. That’s a good example. I was actually just talking about, sort of like, thinking in terms of diagnostic categories and requiring, organizations that require practitioners to use empirically validated treatments that are manualized and diagnostic codes, you know, that conventional model, the notion of ‘we’re going to change you, and fix everything’, ya, that’s kind of what I’m talking about. You know, there’s a systemic problem, or what we might call a structural violence problem that’s still out there, and then there’s just practitioners who don’t do their own work. They don’t do their own inner therapy, or what Joan Halifax calls inner chaplaincy, and they’re kind of operating at the level of the mind, and you know, I think it all starts with us. There was something else I wanted to add to that, but I can’t remember it, so it will come back.
Okay. That’s fine. So, I heard that the National Institute of Mental Health are no longer going to use those diagnoses as a basis for their research moving forward. Do you have any opinion on how that might effect what you do?
I just remembered what I had forgotten. It’s the term ‘mental health’, actually. I, I’m trying not to be argumentative and sort of pedantic, or get kind of fixated on things, but it’s just a term that I think, I think really outlived it’s usefulness. I think it’s harmful for us to consider, to continue using the term ‘mental health.’ I realize the alternative, finding the right alternative might be a challenge. Sometimes I say psyche-motional well being. Because ‘mental health’ reinforces this notion that it’s the mind, when more and more we’re finding that it’s, trauma is stored in the body, and that that effects the mid-pre frontal part of the brain, which creates emotional dysregulation of the nervous system, which is where the mood disorders come from, mood dysregulation, rather, comes from. And so I just want to kind of register that as a little note that I am not in favor of using the term ‘mental health.’ I don’t get, you know, I don’t arch my back and get upset about it. But I would just like to state for the record that I am in favor of us recycling that term and coming up with something more whole person. So, as for your question, so the NIH is no longer going to consider their DSM diagnoses for their research or their research grants?
In their research moving forward.
Well that’ll be interesting.
And I read this in Psychology Today, and the reasoning for that was that the diagnoses weren’t really thoroughly researched before they… they were based on expert consensus, not research data. So in a way, they’re taking a look, ‘are these diagnoses even valid?’
Yah. Thank you. You know, however long it takes for us to wake up to that problem. You know, again, having some compassion for my own profession, it’s so easy for me, and for all of us to be really harsh about that, because it’s such, there’s such injury. Often times there’s a lot of trauma that comes out of misdiagnoses, and people, practitioners used to really just..they’ll say, “so, this borderline person was in my room.” Equating people and identifying them as their diagnoses is harmful and it’s easy for it to happen to us. So I’m critical of that. I also understand that there was a reason the DSM categories formed. You know, clinicians needed to communicate with one another and, you know, sometimes there is relief when a person gets a diagnosis. They say, “Oh, no wonder I am struggling with that. That’s great.” And then a little bit later they have the follow up response, which is “Oh shit! I really do have something. Wow.” So sometimes it’s helpful. But there’s a huge amount of misdiagnosing, and a lot of the DSM, a lot of the diagnoses are really just symptoms. They’re just descriptions of symptoms. They’re not actual things, or there’s tremendous overlap and confusion. So, you know, they did the best they could, and there’s always been a lot of criticism, and there’s always committees that are trying to change things. So I wish them the best, and hope that, you know, we can just somehow find a way to approach that in a different way. I’m certainly not the one who’s going to solve that problem. But I’m glad that they’re re-thinking it. I don’t know how, I don’t know what they have in mind. But I think it’s, it’s a good sign that they’re thinking that way.
Right. Right. So a couple final things before we wrap up this written interview. You know, this, this is a magazine about urban shamanism. So, how do you, are there, how do you feel about bringing ceremony and ritual into therapy, into, or anything like what you do?
Well that’s my favorite question that you’ve asked, actually. I think it’s taken our country two decades, maybe, to realize that we’ve lost so much. I think it’s been missing for a long time. You know, I think it’s easy for us to forget just how long time, for how long it takes for us to grow as a species, as a culture, and our lives are really short, so I’m not being negative here. We lost a lot over a century, let’s say, and now we’re seeing the down sides. You know, young adults don’t have any kind of real acknowledgement or support for their transition, which we’re now seeing is so painful for so many of them. There’s not, there’s really a marginalizing of elderly people, and of course, the sanitization of death and dying. So, ritual is a word that for many people has a negative connotation because then they think religion, and Christianity. And as our culture really is beginning to transition, I think, to, you know, spiritual but not religious- that could mean secular. Spiritual could be secular or it could be more conventionally spiritual. But more and more people I talk to, I talk to hundreds of people each…. let’s say over a period of a week I speak to dozens, so in a month there might be a hundred. There’s really a shift away from traditional sects of Christianity towards broader thinking, and I think people are in need of ritual. And I think part of the challenge here is language, you know, what we call it. But I’m beginning to incorporate elements of ritual in my work, at, not in the hospital, other than prayer and things like that, but in my office for groups, I am beginning to hold memorials for families who have survived the loss through suicide, or people who have lost their lives through addiction, women who have lost babies in utero, or parents who have lost children. But I don’t only want them to be oriented around loss. There’s also rights of passage ceremonies, and honoring age ceremonies. So these are things that I am slowly using my training at Upaya with Joan Halifax, and also going in to see what feels right to me to create some of these. I think it’s very, I think it’s important and I think that there was a period where we were really not wanting it and I think we over-corrected to the point where there was kind of nothing, and now I think we’re swinging back to, ‘maybe it would be nice to have some kind of ceremony for this.’
Okay. Thank you, Jinji.
The remainder of the interview can be seen on our exclusive channel:
Our goal here at The Urban Shaman® is to encourage healthy discussion to further our contemporary definition of shamanism and enhance our local practice. We do not intend to instigate or promote argument or divisiveness. Rather, we believe we can achieve unity and clarity within the wholeness of the full shamanic expression. We would like to provide a safe space for everyone to explore shamanism with mutual respect, and to promote the concept of the shamanic archetype, while dispelling the myths and biases of the stereotype. These exploratory questions are intended to encourage this process and open up the discussion.
- What aspects of Jinji's practice overlap with the shamanic archetype? Can you identify what facets of the shamanic archetype she might be expressing in her work?
- If you were to embrace a couple ideas that Jinji shares in these interviews in defining what shamanic practice might look like, what ideas would those be?
- Jinji talks about secularization, and the trend of moving away from religion and towards spirituality. Do you see shamanism as a religion, or as a spirituality, or both?
- Do you see contemporary shamanism as psychospiritual practice? Why, or why not? And how might contemporary shamanism differ from indigenous and archaic shamanism in regards to the psychological aspects of the work?
- Jinji doesn't call herself a 'shaman', but she may exemplify shamanistic aspects. Is she a shaman? Why, or why not? And if not, what is missing in her practice that excludes her from being considered a shaman?